The inhabitants of Thornbury have learned over the centuries how to conserve and use such supplies of water as they could find and used underground cisterns to collect water from the run off water from their roofs. In the deeds of our own house in Laburnum Terrace there is an agreement that we will allow free passage of rainwater through our guttering to the house at the end of the terrace which still has a cistern. A cistern was also incorporated into the house built by the Pitcher family in Gloucester Road about 1889.
Many of the houses in Thornbury have these cisterns, including houses in Castle Street. There is some evidence that the cisterns in Castle Street may be linked in some way. Some inhabitants say it is possible to hear water running through their cistern.
Jane Bradshaw’s website dedicated to Porch House in Castle Street refers to the fact that water can be heard running under a manhole cover in the Church garden and the tradition of a tunnel beneath the pavement on the South side of Castle Street which was said to be big enough for someone to walk through and which leads to Thornbury Castle.
There are many stories which involve a tunnel down towards the Castle. This was alleged to be an escape route either from the Castle or the Church. However if indeed there is any passageway in that area it is possible that a stream or water course has been culverted and used to supplement the rainwater in the cisterns. If anyone knows more about these stories please let us know.
It is possible that the water from the cisterns was not intended for drinking. Perhaps it was not thought clean enough. The ideal seems to be to have access to a well or pump in addition to the cistern, which had soft water much prized for washing and bathing. This explains sale notices such as that in 1841 when the house “for many years in the occupation of the late Thomas Fewster” came up for auction. The notice made a point of the fact that the house was “well supplied with both sorts of water.”
The use of cisterns continued well into the twentieth century and the catalogue of the sale of Epworth House in 1913 makes a point of the advantage the house has: “The West Gloucester Water Company’s water is laid on and there is a soft water pump with joint use of the Cistern with the owners of the property adjoining.”
The water was pumped up from the cistern by a pump which has caused many of these cistern to be mistaken for wells. The system of using a pump to get the water up from the cistern persisted even in some households that had bathrooms installed upstairs. The Pitcher family in Gloucester Road were able to pump up bath water from the cistern and heat it for bathing up to nearly the end of the twentieth century.
Jack Pridham who lived in what is now the Georgian House remembers having the weekly task of pumping up the water for the family’s baths and he describes the process in his usual graphic and amusing way;
“for personal ablutions and the toilet and for laundering there was a supply of water from a pump in the scullery. The water came from the roof – rainwater, which was collected in a large cistern under the house and needed to be pumped by hand up to a tank in the roof which supplied the bathroom. This held roughly a week’s supply of water and on a Sunday morning it was replenished by 20 minutes of vigorous male activity which could only be stopped when water issued from the tank overflow pipe into the stone trough below. How often I waited and watched, hot and perspiring, for that first dribble to appear! In times of drought this water supply was a problem; the water level in the cistern sometimes went so low that the black sediment from the bottom found its way to the bathroom. In the summer it was also not unusual to find the remains of a rat in the wash basin which usually brought a scream from the women but no Weil’s disease (leptospirosis) or other medical emergencies. We were the lucky ones having a soft, rain water-powered bathroom even though there was from time to time, a degree of contamination that would have brought today’s health inspectors on an asap visitation with a notification of immediate closure”.